Frank’s last words

FA­MOUS LAST WORDS One of those days. It’s been one of those days…

Classic Bike Guide - - Contents -

Just like peo­ple, some­times bikes just don’t feel right…

Amo­ment of re­al­i­sa­tion struck me this af­ter­noon, as they some­times do. I’d been out pow­er­ing around the greensward aboard pos­si­bly the best Nor­ton ever built (elec­tric start, good han­dling, great brakes, com­fort­able too) and had been rid­ing like a com­plete bozo. This is, of course, not en­tirely un­usual, but to­day I was rid­ing a com­fort­able, com­pact and en­tirely con­ven­tional ma­chine as though its tyres were flat, the steer­ing head races seized and I was un­der the in­flu­ence of some­thing pow­er­ful. None of these was the case – any of them would have pro­vided a per­fect ex­cuse. But no. No cor­ner worked, a favourite set of bends was en­tirely un­fa­mil­iar and where there were four changes of di­rec­tion I man­aged about 14. Pa­thetic.

Of course it was the bike’s fault. I de­cided sev­eral times dur­ing the rub­bish ride that I would cease in­sist­ing that 400cc Nor­ton twins are the best thing on the road since the Honda Cub, but would sell it first, be­fore my in-print de­nun­ci­a­tion de­val­ued the hideous junkheap.

But it was also a puz­zle. I had been out on the same bike a cou­ple of days pre­vi­ously, wast­ing time while wait­ing for a pal from the frozen wastes of York­shire to clat­ter up aboard his mid-70s H-D Be­he­moth Glide to com­plain about it. Which he did, but later. The point here is that on the pre­vi­ous ride – dif­fer­ent route, same kind of roads, as is the lo­cal way – the Nor­ton had per­formed per­fectly and I’d en­joyed it con­sid­er­ably. Mock ye not; these ac­tu­ally are great lit­tle bikes. If slow.

Filled with in­dig­na­tion that the bike about which I’ve been singing praises from the very rooftops for some time now had fi­nally be­haved in the way its (many) knock­ers claim, it dawned on me that in my tow­er­ing grump I’d for­got­ten to do what­ever it was I’d gone out to do, so be­fore do­mes­tic mock­ery set in I needed to go out again. On the Nor­ton? Not. A. Chance.

I dragged out the mostly modern Tri­umph twin in­stead, pushed its starter but­ton, ob­serv­ing that it sounds less like su­per­tanker an­chor chains be­ing dragged over a tin roof than does the amus­ing equiv­a­lent on the Nor­ton, and shot off back to M&S. We’re posh in Corn­wall. Al­though the M&S is in Devon. I di­gress.

There was some­thing wrong with the

Tri­umph. Its steer­ing was all over the place. It was im­pos­si­ble to set up the many bends and cor­ners prop­erly. And the en­gine? It was al­ways ei­ther revving off its big ends or lug­ging like a Pan­ther 120 on full re­tard. What on earth was up with the thing? I’d been con­sid­er­ing re­plac­ing it with a newer ver­sion of the same model, but it was plain I needed to think about this. I did the shop­ping and re­turned home. Slowly.

I men­tioned a mo­ment of re­al­i­sa­tion. This was it. I’ve been rid­ing mo­tor­cy­cles – legally – for an en­tire half-cen­tury this very year. Fifty years on two wheels. That’s al­most wor­thy of an ex­cla­ma­tion mark. Al­most. And de­spite… how many miles is that? Even at 10,000 a year av­er­age it’s a half-mil­lion miles. How’s that for a scary thought? And I still can’t get it right ev­ery time. Why not?

Prob­a­bly be­cause rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle with any verve at all is a se­ri­ously com­pli­cated thing to do. And yes, I know full well that there are many rid­ers out there who never think about their rid­ing, they just get on, kick up and go. Never a sec­ond thought. I’ve never been like that, not re­ally. When a chap rides mostly old bikes mostly al­ways, the whole thing feels pre­car­i­ous some­how. So many things to go wrong with a capri­cious ma­chine bal­anced on two small rub­ber con­tact patches, ev­ery ride in­ten­si­fied by the weary nag­ging worry that some­thing will break, fall off or fail. I’ve had front brake ca­ble nip­ples pull off sev­eral times, punc­tures ga­lore, a rear wheel seizure on a Matchless while rid­ing rapidly in­deed down a Lake­land pass. It all adds up to that power of alert­ness which makes ev­ery com­pleted ride into a suc­cess­ful ad­ven­ture. Fifty years. A halfmil­lion miles, maybe. I am, I de­cided, en­ti­tled to an off-day ev­ery so of­ten.

Which is a com­fort­ing thought.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing I in­vented an ex­cuse and took out the Nor­ton again. It ran well. I rode well. My favourite sets of bends pro­duced wide smiles and a need to re­peat the ride through them. Mo­tor­cy­cling was an ex­tra­or­di­nary dis­cov­ery when I rode my very first ma­chine over a half-cen­tury ago. The ride re­mains the same.

Never give up. Never sur­ren­der. Try again. Al­ways.

“I dragged out the mostly modern Tri­umph twin in­stead, pushed its starter but­ton, ob­serv­ing that it sounds less like su­per­tanker an­chor chains be­ing dragged over a tin roof than does the amus­ing equiv­a­lent on the Nor­ton, and shot off back to M&S. We’re posh in Corn­wall”

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